Interview with Heidi C. Vlach

What do you read for pleasure?
A varied diet. Discussion blogs, original fiction, fan fiction, random science and culture trivia — all sorts of stuff I find online. When I read a "real book", it's usually something unusual or nichey. Ideally a fantasy work with some magic and dragons in it, but I'm very, very picky about what I read to the end.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
1) Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. The book is inspiring already, but the icing on the cake is its journey to publication. It's an odd story that no one thought would sell — but it caught on in a big way and a lot of people found it meaningful.
2) His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik. I'm not usually interested in historical fiction, but I think the use of dragons to question human society is a great move. I also appreciate the sense of realism, where changing social norms is a complex, frustrating endeavor and you can't just solve everything with one flashy act of heroism.
3) A Left-Handed Sword by Phil Geusz. It's a short novella, but it's still a beautiful look at the human spirit and how the little things matter.
4) A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge. I struggled with the denser metaphysical parts of the story, I admit, but the alien races! They're unusually-designed beings who are well-developed in their own societies, and the narrative treats them like they're as valid as humans. That kind of development in a story always delights me.
5) The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. I just read it recently and I absolutely loved the whimsical nature of magic and the poetic voice.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
I understand that traditional publishers have (very large) bills to pay, but I think it's sad that they're so focused on mimicking past successes and jumping on bandwagons. I've been told that my Stories of Aligare should be "like Redwall" or "like Game of Thrones" — by people who don't know or care what my stories are actually about! But I say why bother writing and publishing new books if there's nothing new in them? I want my publishing endeavors to be focused on characters and worlds, not on copying someone else's financial success. As an independant author, I'm proud that I answer only to myself and I'll never be forced to write something just because it's "what sells".
Describe your desk
I don't have a desk, per se. But when writing, I sometimes sit at my kitchen table, which is a cluttered mess of fresh fruit, bills, Tupperware and paper maché artworks-in-progress. Empty workspace means an empty mind, you know!
How do you approach cover design?
I try to keep it clean and simple. Start with some beautiful commissioned artwork or a custom-made prop, then add text in a clean, appropriate font. I also pay a lot of attention to the colour palette, to make sure the cover looks striking and is pleasing to the eye. It bothers me a lot to see indie book covers with garish red text clashing against the background!

Before publishing my first Aligare book, I thought long and hard on whether to depict my characters on the cover. I decided to use broader images — such as a gemstone emitting magical light in a lonely-looking place. That way the image is more symbolic and open to the reader's interpretation.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Bringing a uniquely crafted experience to someone else, getting them all excited or delighted or upset about these words they've just read, and knowing that wouldn't have happened if I had just given up and watched TV.
What do your fans mean to you?
I love that there are people who find my work valuable — in an intellectual, artistic, or emotional way, that is. My absolute favourite thing is when someone asks me questions about the Aligare world or cracks a joke about one of the characters. Being a part of someone's vocabulary just makes all the effort worthwhile.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I was born in northern Ontario, Canada and I grew up here. My family moved when I was 13 years old but only about 130km (80 miles) from my birth town.

Both cities I've lived in are relatively small, homogenous cities that are several hours' drive from the next community. When I was a kid, there was a strong perception of what "normal" was, an perception that was good-natured but often uninformed. For instance, racism to a non-white person was an unacceptable thing, but it was thought rare and baffling to be lactose intolerant (like the majority of the human population is).
Growing up in that environment, I liked books that taught me trivia, and sharing that trivia often got positive "Oh, I didn't know that!" reactions. Very encouraging. When the exciting new Internet showed up, I had even more access to information about the broader world. And as a young adult, restaurant work introduced me to newly immigrated people who taught me about their own ways and asked me to explain my own. I was once a waitress in the only sushi restaurant in town, convincing people to try a bite of raw tuna, or maybe even some of the Korean owners' homemade kimchi. All of that gave me a love of variety. I hadn't grown up with delightfully expanding horizons, I'm not sure I'd be so bent on writing atypical fantasy stories. I'm just convinced new experiences are good for a person. We can survive in a climate of mundanity — but why just survive when you can grow?

My other big side effect of my environment is my dislike of winter. The Greater Sudbury region can't compare to Canada's far north or anything, but still, snow sets in around Halloween and doesn't melt until well into May, with -35C (-31F) days not uncommon. As someone who feels chilled easily, I hate it! Which is surely why the Aligare world is always temperate, with a vague fear of an apocalyptic thing called "Cold".
What's the story behind your latest book?
Tinder Stricken started out as a short story idea about a hunter trapped in his own snare, using language magic to ask forest animals to help him. I thought it had good potential for a full novel, and asked myself what an interesting world setting would be. Maybe a mountain world? Where the flora and fauna change as the altitude changes? Yeah, that seemed like an underused fact of real-world geography, let's do that.

I looked up real-world mountain cultures and discovered that Nepal is an amazingly varied country, partly because of its mountain geography but also because of the high concentration of different cultures and languages. At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about Nepal. Challenge accepted! I started researching and building a Nepal-inspired world.

The story broadened out from that trapped human scene. It became about Esha the poor farmwoman, who asks a phoenix to help her free herself from a snare — at the cost of the phoenix stealing her precious, jewel-handled khukuri knife. Esha then hires Atarangi the (Maori-inspired) diplomat to help her negotiate with the phoenix. The journey seems simple at first, but negotiations aren't simple: the phoenix has a debt to pay with Esha's knife. Esha's understanding of the world blooms outward as she sheds old prejudices and learns that people aren't always humans.

It's a complex weaving of stuff I think is interesting. Esha is a middle-aged woman with an early-onset health condition (transformation into a goat), and she just wants to get enough money to retire and be comfortable for once. That's a relatable issue — but you never seem to see it in magical fantasy.. And I think older protagonists are interesting! They don't show up often enough among the fantasy sea of rebellious youths, and they have an interesting depth of experience to contribute to a story. Tinder Stricken looks at many facets of mortality and personhood. It challenged me to develop and write, and I'm very proud of the end result.
What are you working on next?
I'm writing some short stories set in the world of Aligare, for submission to anthologies. I found a few submission calls for stories about gods and legends — both of which the Aligare world has in abundance. The three peoplekinds are always telling each other stories about gods and other great beings, as part of their oral teaching tradition.
What are your plans for your writing career?
I'm going to keep writing unusual speculative stories with a focus on non-human characters. With enough time and persistence, I hope to be one of those authors people know of as "weird but good".
Published 2015-09-26.
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